Thursday, July 25, 2013

Riding and Writing: Meeting Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
It is a clear afternoon after a long spell of rain, and I am sitting in the front room, trying to work. Although really I am looking out the window as I wait for my guest. He is taking the train from Belfast, then riding his bike the rest of the way to my rural dwelling. I have given extremely detailed directions and hope he finds the place okay. The kettle is on. I compose myself. I will keep it cool upon meeting him, and by no means will I act like an excited 12-year old. As I tell myself this one more time, I hear the unmistakable ring of a bicycle bell. 

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
Last year I posted a review of the book On My Own Two Wheels by Malachi O’Doherty - a Belfast writer who rediscovered cycling in his 6th decade of life. As part of his plunge into all things bicycle, Malachi had been reading my blog. Unbeknownst to him, all the while I had also been reading his writing - on the conflict in Northern Ireland. His books on the subject are a unique mix of personal and political, morphing effortlessly from sharp social commentary to novelesque memoirs, complete with details of his sex-life. Starting with I Was a Teenage Catholic and The Trouble with Guns, I went through the books one after another. I was drawn to Malachi's writing not only by the topic, but also by how organically he intertwined such seemingly disparate genres. I have done some political writing in the past, including co-authoring a (tearfully dry and boring) foreign policy book. But more recently, I've been working on some fiction/memoir type writing, which has been profoundly messy and frustrating. Reading Malachi's work helped me see that what I thought was impossible to write about, on my own terms, was in fact possible. Of course I never dreamt of approaching the author to discuss any of this... until we "met" through Lovely Bicycle. Life indeed can be stranger than fiction.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
Now I'm in Northern Ireland, and Malachi O’Doherty is outside - in person. He looks friendly, simultaneously distinguished and youthful, and slightly out of breath. He is wearing a leather bomber jacket over jeans and a flannel button-down, an outfit in which he'd cycled 15 miles in the heat. At this moment I forget he is a writer whom I am eager to meet, and relate to him as cyclist to cyclist. I come out to greet him and examine the bike so vividly described in On My Own Two Wheels. It does not disappoint. Decked out in all manner of commuter and touring accessories, the steel blue Ridgeback stands out from the sleek racing bikes that fill the country roads around these parts. 

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There are lights on every braze-on, and racks galore.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There is a handlebar bag, strategically positioned above the external cables of the Shimano shifters (notorious for interfering with handlebar bags).

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There is an adjustable stem.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
An enormous roadster-style bell is mounted to the drop bars

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
A heavy duty foldable lock graces the downtube in leu of a 3rd bottle cage.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
An invisible ink security system provides extra theft protection.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
A bar-end mirror is mounted so low I am compelled to ask whether he can actually see out of it ("Nah, not really" Malachi laughs.)

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
But the pièce de résistance is the forward-set saddle - which lends the modern touring bike an air of an antique pathracer. Malachi explains that, after some time, the bike's fit felt simultaneously too big and too relaxed. So he simply reversed the seatpost to solve both issues. 

Overall, the bike comes across as both amusing and somberly dignified - which I suspect is how the owner intends it. For over tea I discover that Malachi is one of those rare people capable of being both intensely serious and intensely funny, switching between these modes seamlessly. His speaking voice is that of a natural story teller. And there is also something of the “seen it all, heard it all” country doctor about him. I get the impression there is little one could say to shock this man: that whatever shameful thing you have to reveal, he will just chuckle and nod, as if it is perfectly matter-of-course, in the scheme of things. I imagine all this is a useful toolkit for a journalist, dealing with such a touchy topic as the socio-political climate in Northern Ireland. 

Bikes and Binevenagh
On me Malachi's manner has an immediate disarming effect. I feel at ease, and also like a younger, less jaded version of myself. We talk for several hours, and none of it is bike related. Then we go for a ride, continuing the conversation. Malachi is quite good to ride with. We meander easily as we talk, synchronisng speeds and weaving around each other. At one point a dog leaps out from a farmer's yard and, to my horror, goes for my companion's ankle. This does not seem to phase him in the least. "He's got my trousers!" Malachi remarks with a laugh as he shakes the angry little creature off. Then he continues with his train of thought. It occurs to me that this is how he's learned to deal with life's problems - and, more specifically, with being threatened, as a journalist writing about sensitive topics. 

Malachi O'Doherty, Limavady
We talk about writing, and how doing it every day becomes addictive, like cycling. You don't feel right if you don't ride. And you don't feel right if you don't write. It almost doesn't matter what and for how long, as long as you write/ ride something that day. In that vein, we also talk about "real" writing versus writing you do because it is easy, or a change of pace, or a tactic to deal with writer's block - filling those gaps when the real stuff does not flow. Lately Malachi has been submitting stories to an erotica magazine (here is one about cycling, if you're curious) that are exactly that. The stories flow easily and he has fun writing them. But he wonders about the relationship between these pieces and his "serious" work. I nod. As I see it, there is nothing wrong with erotica per se - except that it's a closed genre, that once a writer settles into, can be difficult to escape. A bit like vampire stories, or murder mysteries, or ...bicycle blogs for that matter. 

Before heading off, Malachi gives the Binevenagh climb a try - curious after reading my description. He tells me it is steeper than the Torr Road near Ballycastle I would not even consider the previous year. I am surprised to hear that, and now I want to give Torr Road a try. Riding, like writing, does grow easier over time.

26 comments:

  1. He seems like a total boss. Also, how does the invisible ink system work exactly?

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    1. I think a unique code is stamped under the clear coat, allowing for the bike to be identified if attempted to be resold.

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  2. Very nice story, and it answers my question about the "device" in your Flickr photo. I didn't realize it's a bike lock. I see, too, that he doesn't have a chain guard. Thanks for the tip about "My Own Two Wheels," Constance. I might pick that up soon. Have a great time on your travels!

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  3. Malachi looks like an awesome dude. Now excuse me while I read some bike porn!

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  4. the reverse seat post is an old trick used by practical people....

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    1. It works when a bike has a v slack ST angle, as vintage roadsters did and some modern touring bikes do. Otherwise, reversing the seat post like this can lead to knee injury.

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    2. lot's of things can lead to knee injury ;) just saying this has been done forever with folks looking to make a bike work without having to replace the bike. most often -- but not always -- done by those who pedal very casually.

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  5. Even without the photos, you have managed to paint an intriguing portrait of this writer I have never read, but now want to.

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  6. Velouria, do you happen to know the make of his front racks ? They are so well integrated that they look custom to me. Thanks ;)
    As for erotica... The sample you linked reminds me of what a famous French writer once said about this genre: The main thing to avoid is mannerism, because you don't want your reader to read the scene, you want him to watch it, to be the voyeur. So it seems to me that Malachi O'Doherty is actually quite good at it!

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    1. It's definitely not a custom rack; I will ask Malachi what it is.

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  7. I think the frame is steel, Reynolds 725. I read Malachi's book after seeing it here and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  8. Funny...I had just moved this book up on my Nook queue to re-read it after purchasing it last year...after reading your review. Thx.

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  9. I just finished re-reading Malachi's "On My Own Two Wheels" and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. Thanks for the interview. I like his touring bike set up.

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  10. I read and enjoyed Mr. O'Doherty's On My Own Two Wheels after your review. Reading his linked article reminds me of a time I explained to a new cycle touring companion that sometimes married racers had to take time off from their training to engender the next generation. That night she told me happily I had made a liar of myself.

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  11. Ugh, Writers.

    Remember in High School how badly you (well, I) hated the stud Quarterback and the way he automatically had ever girls attention when he loped into the room, or the sleepy eyed beautiful man-boy in College that could play the guitar just good enough to keep a circle of your friends spellbound in rapt silence at every coffee house or mixer? Remember how you wanted to kick him in the pants but still wished on every falling star to be that guy?

    Well, I outgrew the hero jock worship about 15 minutes after graduation and I could care less who the new Mennonite Bob Dylan is these days but I WANT TO BE MALACHI O'FRIKKENDOHERTY WHEN I GROW UP. He writes so well(read "The Trouble With Guns"), he can somehow make grown smarty-pants women feel like 12 year old's and when he turns his seat post around like the dope that assembles the bikes at WAL-MART people complement him on his sense of style and freedom from convention. And why aren't we ripping him to shreds for wearing Jeans and a Leather jacket to ride a bike in July? Because he's a stud writer, that's why!!!

    Plus he's Irish. Sometime ask me about the Irish guys who used to come over here and race in the summer 30 years ago and beat the frejoles out of us then spend every evening getting our girlfriends to buy them dinner and drinks but not right now because I forgot how pissed off I still am about that, stupid Irish dudes that kick our asses and take our women and write better books than I can even read....

    Ugh. Writers.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Omigosh. The Irish pros all had GFs in Chicago too.

      Tremendously nice as guys to ride with. Smooth pedallers as well as smooth talkers.

      The reversed post is a kludge. What he wants is a shorter stem and/or shorter toptube. Apparently he uses the bike a good deal and the ST is slack so I'll not much worry about him flying over the bars when he applies the front brake. But a kludge is still a kludge.

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    2. Swoonworthy comments as usual Spindizzy.


      (Though too be fair it doesn't take much to make me act like a 12 year old, so don't go giving the man too much credit. )

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    3. How old are you now Velouria... 32?

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    4. Anonymous is right about those guys being really great guys, Hard Men on the bike but incredibly funny and with a healthy perspective on life. It makes it tough to be mad as hell at anyone who makes you laugh that hard.

      We all had Irish accents by the end of a long night hanging out with them at Fran's house.

      Spindizzy

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    5. What he wants to do is to pedal on the balls of the feet instead of his arches.

      Arch/heel pedalling is the only reason why he's got that seatpost the wrong way around. And then adjust the cockpit to suit.

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  12. The front rack is a Blackburn CL-1. I've been using mine for 20 years and love it. Not having the 'hoop' that goes over the front wheel is nice when travelling, the racks fit inside my panniers. The only disadvantage is it requires a fork with threaded bosses on both the inside and outside of each fork blade, OR a through hole.
    Mike

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  13. Thanks. It is good to know about its mounting peculiarities.
    Anon 1:03pm

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  14. This is a strange experience for me, being talked about in this way, but fine. Let me clarify a little. I do sometimes dress more practically for cycling, but I was comfortable in my leather jacket. It served me well once when I had a fall. Re the saddle post: I was trying it out reversed but I wasn't making a statement nor was I assertively confident that it was the right thing to do. It's actually back the right way now and maybe I'll get a shorter stem or maybe I'll admit that the bike is the wrong size. I have another bike, a singly, with a tighter frame and when I alternate between them the ridgeback feels like a stretch in a way that it doesn't when it's the only bike I'm riding for weeks on end.
    As for my being Irish, a brilliant writer and sexually alluring - there's nothing much I can change there. Thanks everybody for your interest. I feel honoured to feature on a blog I have been following faithfully for about three years now.

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    1. I wouldn't take ANYBODIES comments too seriously on this blog, especially about our bikes or wardrobes, but you already know that after reading it for this long.

      I didn't know about your work before V mentioned it last year but I'm glad I found a copy of "The Trouble With Guns". Good work, carry on...

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